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John Prine Always Saw the Best in Us

The legendary country-folk hero died on Tuesday at age 73 of complications from the coronavirus

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

John Prine, country-folk genius and American hero, has died, at 73, of complications from the coronavirus. His hospitalization in late March was rightfully treated as a national emergency; for the sort of person inclined to fear the worst, it was a chance to prepare. But Prine, with his bawdy wit and his goofball grace and his boundless optimism even at his most politely enraged, was emphatically not that sort of person. He was the best of us because he saw the best in us, or anyway made the best of it. Nonetheless, the challenge now is to mourn the man who wrote “Hello in There,” and this will hurt, and it’s meant to.

In 1970, one of the greatest songwriters ever born was in his mid-20s, and an Army veteran, and a proud native of small-town Illinois, and a mailman, and a minor sensation on the Chicago open-mic circuit. “He appears onstage with such modesty he almost seems to be backing into the spotlight,” wrote none other than Roger Ebert, gracing Prine with his very first review, a righteous rave in the Chicago Sun-Times. “He sings rather quietly, and his guitar work is good, but he doesn’t show off. He starts slow. But after a song or two, even the drunks in the room begin to listen to his lyrics. And then he has you.”

Ebert was floored—as were the drunks, as was everybody—by the silly and furious Vietnam protest song called “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore.” (“They’re already overcrowded,” explains the man at the pearly gates, “From your dirty little war.”) And by the shattering and even more furious Vietnam-vet eulogy “Sam Stone,” the heroin-soaked lament with the line “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes,” as brutal and perfect a series of words as any singer has ever strung together anywhere, anytime. And by the sad-sack stoner goof “Illegal Smile.” (“Bowl of oatmeal tried to stare me down … and won.”) And by the titanic “Angel From Montgomery,” a towering character study that starts with a 20-something mailman delivering these lines—

I am an old woman
Named after my mother
My old man is another child that’s grown old
If dreams were lightning
Thunder were desire
This old house would have burnt down a long time ago

—and daring you not to believe it. “They’re nothing like the work of most young composers these days,” Ebert marveled of these songs, “who seem to specialize in narcissistic tributes to themselves.”

Prine was destined for greatness, but an outward-facing, humanistic, shockingly empathetic sort of greatness, and he achieved it, immediately, with his self-titled 1971 debut, an Americana monolith with a murderers’-row tracklist that stands up to whatever Bob Dylan album you’d care to throw at it. Somewhere in there is “Hello in There,” his gentlest and most shocking plea for empathy yet. It is narrated by a moody retiree, and in the first verse we also meet his wife, Loretta, and their four kids, Joe, John, Linda, and Davy. (“We lost Davy in the Korean War,” Prine sings, so casually and solemnly you believe it. “And I still don’t know what for / Don’t matter anymore.”) The chorus begs you, politely, to pay this proud but feeble old man some attention:

Y’know that old trees just grow stronger
And old rivers grow wilder every day
Old people just grow lonesome
Waiting for someone to say
“Hello in there”

Care about other people, sang John Prine, for the next 50 years. He never topped “Hello in There,” but somehow also topped it all the time. But that’s still the song Joan Baez offered in tribute last week, dedicating her long-beloved version to John and his wife, Fiona Whelan Prine, who has recovered from the coronavirus herself. It strikes me that the rousing and crushing intimacy Baez channels here—another master singer-songwriter performing in a lush kitchen, pulling you even further into the room by avoiding eye contact with the camera—is what every Coronavirus Era musician is now trying to achieve by taking to YouTube and Instagram Live and the like. And it’s not that there can be only one, but there can be very few.

There is no wrong place to dip into Prine’s voluminous but never intimidating catalog. I am freshly astounded, every single time, by the knucklehead swagger of the opener and title track to 1973’s Sweet Revenge, too clever to be rock ‘n’ roll and too exquisitely raucous not to be: “I got kicked off Noah’s Ark / I turn my cheek to unkind remarks / There was two of everything but one of meeeee.” Bruised Orange, from 1978, is the one with “That’s the Way the World Goes ’Round,” a loopy and wise anthem about overcoming hardship and getting over yourself: “It’s half an inch of water,” he observes in the chorus, “And you think you’re gonna drown.” (When I saw Prine live in the early 2000s at a zoo in Ohio, he told a story about a little girl who misheard the words half an inch of water as happy enchilada, and he conceded that that’s a lovely image, too.)

On 1986’s German Afternoons, mired deep in a decade that drowned plenty of deified Golden Era greats of his caliber (and far below his caliber) in vapid overproduction and yet more narcissism, he could still fire off a simple, elegant, and expertly heartbreaking classic like “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness.” Fast-forward to 1999’s delicately rowdy duets collection In Spite of Ourselves, in which he audibly flirted with the likes of Lucinda Williams, Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless, his wife Whelan, and most memorably Iris DeMent. His first verse on the title track is the sweetest and porniest love letter a girl could ask for:

She don’t like her eggs all runny
She thinks crossin’ her legs is funny
She looks down her nose at money
She gets it on like the Easter Bunny
She’s my baby, I’m her honey
I’m never gonna let her go

And DeMent is there to fire right back: “He ain’t got laid in a month of Sundays / Caught him once and he was sniffin’ my undies.” Dirty old men are people, too.

Prine wrote plenty about death—constantly, really, starting right with “Paradise,” another all-timer from his debut album about his family roots in ravaged Kentucky coal country:

When I die let my ashes float down the Green River
Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester Dam
I’ll be halfway to heaven with paradise waitin’
Just five miles away from wherever I am

This shattering and beautiful 2018 piece from Pitchfork’s Jayson Greene explores Prine’s respectful relationship with mortality in depth. (From 1973’s “Please Don’t Bury Me”: “And the deaf can take both of my ears / If they don’t mind the size.”) Prine explained his sensitivity to the topic this way:

“I guess I just process death differently than some folks,” he admits. “Realizing you’re not going to see that person again is always the most difficult part about it. But that feeling settles, and then you are glad you had that person in your life, and then the happiness and the sadness get all swirled up inside you. And then you’re this great, awful candy bar, walking around in a pair of shoes.”

This great, awful candy bar is a quintessential John Prine phrase. At the time he was promoting his hushed and lovely final album, 2018’s The Tree of Forgiveness; I interviewed him around then, too, though our conversation was a good deal more frivolous. (“I remember that gig—when it comes to zoo gigs, that was one of the nicer ones,” he recalled of that Ohio show I can still remember in vivid detail nearly 20 years later, also helpfully describing what it’s like at some of his lousier zoo gigs: “You’re in the middle of a fucking zoo.”) The Tree of Forgiveness, recorded long after Prine had fought and beaten cancer twice, knows what’s coming, eventually: Yes, the last song is called “When I Get to Heaven.” (It’s a drinking-and-smoking song, naturally.) There is also the elegiac “Summer’s End,” which is especially hard to take at the moment:

The moon and stars hang out in bars just talking
I still love that picture of us walking
Just like that ol’ house we thought was haunted
Summer’s end came faster than we wanted

But he radiated triumph even at his most melancholy, and brimmed with life even at his most death-haunted. As part of the album’s promo tour/victory lap, he played Austin City Limits in 2018, and here I am now, startled anew five decades on, by “Angel From Montgomery,” and the audacity of that opening line.

“I am an old woman / Named after my mother,” sang John Prine, and whether he himself was young or old, thriving or struggling, a promising open-mic newcomer or a revered colossus, not one person ever thought to respond, No, you’re not. Prine was whatever he said he was, whoever he wanted to be, and whoever you wanted to be, too. He always had you. And you’ll always have him.